Dead men don’t play piano

Sony’s new voodoo doesn’t do a historic record any favors

Now if only they could re-animate his enthusiasm.

Now if only they could re-animate his enthusiasm.

Bach: The Goldberg Variations (BWV 988), the 1955 Performance; Glenn Gould, piano. Available May 29 from Sony BMG Masterworks.

Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations remains among the most celebrated classical performances of all time. Its release made the 22-year-old pianist a sensation, hailed worldwide for his rare ability to convey the densely layered counterpoint of Bach’s masterwork. In fact, by measuring up to their virtuosic complexity, Gould rescued the “Goldbergs” from over 200 years of relative obscurity, elevating them to their proper stature in Bach’s immense catalogue. Tellingly, it took a player whose astonishing precision would earn him comparisons to a machine, but, ever since 1955, if you wanted the definitive Goldbergs, you had to have Gould’s.

So what would it take to top them? How about an immaculate new edition, courtesy of a machine whose astonishing precision has earned it comparisons to a player? This month, courtesy of Sony BMG, listeners can hear Gould’s Goldbergs anew and in exquisite, unprecedented clarity—liberated at last from the sound flaws of ’50s monaural equipment and unencumbered by the fact that the man himself now has been dead for 25 years.

With help from North Carolina-based music software developer Zenph Studios, a team of engineers analyzed the original recordings and converted their sonic information into electronic data. (In addition to capturing obvious information like pitch and note duration, Zenph’s software quantifies nearly a dozen more subtle performance attributes, such as hammer velocity and pedal position.) These high-definition MIDI files then were replayed and recorded using a Yamaha Disklavier Pro, essentially an advanced and very expensive player piano. What makes the result so remarkable is how much more it is than a mere remastering. Thus, in an unbridled display of salesmanship, Zenph and Sony have taken to calling it a “re-performance.”

Well, the new disc offers an accurate and—more astoundingly—nuanced reproduction of Gould’s legendary Goldbergs. Yes, it’s a testament to Zenph’s amazing technology. All but the most finely tuned ears, and the most discerning of Gould aficionados, will find the music indistinguishable from that which the flesh-and-blood player so memorably recorded more than half a century ago. However fresh and lifelike it sounds, though, it’s still not really him.

Must we pretend otherwise? Television commercials already have resurrected long-deceased stars to hock everything from beers to vacuums, but so far no manufacturer has had the gall to put forth the preposterous notion of such an appearance as an actual testimonial, let alone a “performance.” A performance is a finite event, a physical act. With all due respect to the metaphysically inclined, you can’t really give one without actually being there.

Not that Gould ever got hung up on such semantics. Nor, even, did he resist new musical technology. On the contrary, Gould routinely advocated electronic media as an aid to performers—just not as a substitute for them. Implying otherwise is a leap, but that hasn’t stopped the otherwise excellent Gould biographer Kevin Bazzana from gushing in the new liner notes: “In effect, a long dead pianist can now give live performances or make recordings of interpretations that are still recognizably his.”

Recognizably his, sure, but he isn’t making anything, because he’s still dead. For all the extraordinary clarity of this new recording, the fanfare surrounding it has the unfortunate and ironic effect of obscuring the masterful music itself.

Yet Zenph and Sony, delighted with their technical feat, have chosen a damn-the-torpedoes approach, with more “re-performances” already in the works. For the moment, the technology is limited to piano music, but not to the classical genre. Jazz virtuoso Art Tatum is next in line for the Zenph treatment, and while many will rejoice in hearing Tatum’s near superhuman runs and trademark modulations in clean audio, it’s doubtful they’ll be converted to a belief in the miracle of musical resurrection.

Meanwhile, lingering in this attempt at a newly definitive, sonically improved Gould/Goldberg edition is an inadvertent insult to the pianist’s legacy. What it fails to take into account is that Gould himself was so displeased with his youthful 1955 interpretations that he recorded them again in 1981.